The New York Yankees and New York Mets are having completely different seasons, with different expectations, different results and are in different points in their franchise's history, with the Yankees in their, as always, "win-now" mode with a $200 million payroll and the Mets in a transition year (sure, it's sort of by default, and calling it a "transition year" may be kind, but it is what it is). To put things in perspective, we can go back in time to a pair of seasons in each team's past to give us an idea of what's going on this year.
The 1961 Yankees are considered one of the great teams in baseball history, with a handful of Hall of Famers on the roster and, of course, Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record to make the year forever memorable. Am I going to compare this year's edition of the Yanks to that great team? Yes. Well, kind of. If we take a close look at both of those team's offenses, they have much in common.
While no one on the 2011 Yankees may have a Maris/Mickey Mantle-like battle for home run immortality, the team is belting dingers at a record-setting pace. The 1961ers hit a then-MLB-record 240 home runs. Besides Maris' 61 and Mantle's 54, four other players had 20 or more: Moose Skowron (28), Yogi Berra (22), Elston Howard (21) and Johnny Blanchard (21). Today's team is spreading out the wealth, also, with Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano all heading toward the 30-plus-homer mark. If the present-day Bombers keep up their long-ball pace (1.89 per game), they would shatter the record that stands today, which is 264, held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.
The two Yankee teams also have similar mid-level team batting averages, .263 for the 1961 team and .256 this year. The 1961 squad's average was eighth out of 18 major league teams, while the 2011 Yankees are 11th out of 30. There have been 111 seasons in Yankee/Highlander/Oriole franchise history (they were known as the Baltimore Orioles in 1901 and '02, before moving to New York), and the two team's batting averages rank as 70th and 84th on the franchise list. Meanwhile, the 1961 team's 240 homers are third best, only behind 2009's 244 and 2004's 242 (we won't bother going into a PED discussion for this article). And this year's team's final number will surely rival those at the top. Neither team is fond of stealing bases, either. The Mantle-Maris Yankees only swiped 28 bases (why bother, right?), which puts them 108th on the all-time Yankee list, and this year's team has only 10 stolen bases (the 1910 team is atop the franchise list, with 288 stolen bases, by the way). Both coincidentally feature an ace left-hander anchoring their rotation, as well, in Whitey Ford and CC Sabathia. The old Yankee offense lived and died by the long ball (well, as it turned out, they lived), and this year's team is doing the same. The 1961 Yankees achieved the ultimate goal, though: They were World Champions, after going 109-53 during the regular season. Will the 2011 home run barrage lead to the same success this year?
As for the Mets, our comparison year is 1980. That team and this year's edition are not statistical twins, but instead are new-regime cousins. The three seasons preceding 1980 were disasters for the Mets. They finished in last place all three years, jettisoned stars such as Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, while Shea Stadium was nicknamed Grant's Tomb. Coincidentally, the seasons from 2007 to 2009 were also disasters. Maybe not the same type of disasters as their '70s forefathers, but disasters nonetheless. And until the recent winning streak by the Mets, Citi Field might as well have been called Wilpon's Morgue. The 1980 season ushered in new ownership (hello, Fred Wilpon, along with Nelson Doubleday, of course) and a new general manager: Frank Cashen. And while this year did not bring us the gift of new ownership for the Mets (though a minority owner may be on his way), a new general manager did arrive in town. And like Cashen, who was instrumental in building the 1960s/70s Baltimore Orioles, Sandy Alderson has a powerhouse on his résumé, as well, in the 1980s Oakland A's. The 1980 season was the beginning of a rebuilding process that ultimately led to a World Series victory. And now it's Alderson's turn. The '80 team didn't have many (or really any) returning stars the way this year's Mets have in David Wright, Jose Reyes, etc., but only a few serviceable holdovers like John Stearns, Lee Mazzilli, Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry and Craig Swan. A few rookies who would play big roles in the future (or be dealt for a key cog) got their first taste of the big leagues that season, with Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Hubie Brooks all debuting.
Thirty-one years ago was Year One in the transition from the irrelevant, black hole late-'70s Mets to popular champions. This year is Alderson's "see what we have" season, with big decisions on the horizon. All signs point to Alderson using the Cashen model of patience and building from within. And while the 2011 Mets should finish with a better record than the 1980 team (67-95) and a smattering of players may be on the roster five years from now, both seasons mark a shift in franchise philosophy and leadership and are/will be a turning point in team history. If the Yankees' question is, will they match the 1961 team to win a championship, the Mets' query is, will Alderson make similar successful decisions that Cashen made, which led to an era of prosperity.